When did self-awareness become an obstacle in our lives?

After a quarter-century of consulting with organizations and coaching their leaders, I realized that it was the self-awareness of people that was a prime hurdle to fulfilling potential, creating impact, and leading people.

Let’s look into this.

What is self-awareness?

Self-awareness is knowing who you are within the context of your life situations.

There are two sides to self-awareness. One is knowing who we are as persons. The other is understanding the situations that we are in. Self-awareness and situational awareness are indelibly intertwined.

Self-awareness is being aware of who we are, who we can become, what our potential is, and, maybe more importantly, who we are not. This is particularly true in a time where social media has the power to mold people into persons that their friends and family do not recognize.

In my short book, May Your No Be A Yes, there is a story of a situation that Dan, a character in the book, finds himself in a self-aware moment.

Sitting in a local non-profit board meeting hearing reports, Dan senses that something seems off. He can’t pinpoint it. Quietly and quickly he asks.

When was this change first spoken about? Was it in this meeting or a previous one? Or, is this something discussed privately that the board is only now learning about?


Dan, then, speaks up.


I have a couple of questions.


Why are we just now hearing about this change? It sounds like there has already been considerable conversation about it? When did this first come up? (Question One.)


What is the impact of the change that you are now asking us to endorse? (Question Two.)


Lastly, it is not clear to me who benefits from this change? (Question Three.)“


In a moment, Dan, by asking the first three questions, has not only brought clarity to the discussion, but focused attention on who are the beneficiaries of the recommended action.


The first three questions move us from initial awareness to a depth of understanding quickly and clearly. It places our awareness into the context of time so that we can track changes leading to the moment that we are focused upon. Then we can plan for the transitions that need to be created for the future.

The three questions come from the Five Questions that Everyone must Ask.

1.  What has changed? How am I in transition?

2.  What is my impact?

3.  Who am I impacting?

4.  What opportunities do I have?

5.  What problems have I created? What obstacles do I face?

You can find an infographic on them at my website, edbrenegar.com.

Self-awareness provides us the perspective that creates the situation awareness that we need at that moment. More specifically, what is situational awareness?

What is Situational Awareness?

Situational awareness is the observation followed by the recognition of what is taking place in social and organizational settings that leads to decisions about how we are to act according to our own perception of who we are. Our awareness shows us what is happening and the impact that we can have.

This reminds me of a quote from the Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, “Your own acts tell the world who you are and what kind of society you think it should be.”

Situational awareness requires that we are able to detach ourselves from our own self-gratification to see other people’s needs and desires in the same way. Let me borrow again from May Your No Be A Yes where I use the example of two different marriages.

In the first marriage, we find a couple who both believe in marriage but discover after several years that their conceptions of marriage are different. He likes the idea of having a family to come home to after work. She has this idealized view where everyone places the family first over every other priority.

We have a man who decides that he must begin to say No to emotionally survive a crumbling marriage. We have a woman who decides that she must say No in order for her family to survive what she perceives is a deteriorating situation.


What is missing from this relationship? It is easy to see that communication was missing. (They) lived together not so much as husband and wife, and father and mother, but as roommates sharing domestic responsibilities of a home and the raising of two children. This is not unlike a person finding the ideal place of employment, and then watching as the social environment of work changes. The responsibilities remain the same or increase, but the enjoyment of working for this company is gone. The same is true for (them). Both learned to say No, but their No’s were a response to something that they perceived as negative. Their No’s were never about a specific Yes. Their No’s were about survival in a situation that they each saw as unacceptable.

In the other marriage, Dan, who has introduced above, is married to Dawn. They are young, successful, and living extravagant lifestyles. At the point they are ready to begin to have children, they come to the realization that their lifestyle is poorly suited for raising children. They decide to say no to their own individual professional gratification in order to say yes to the establishment of their family. Both change jobs that would mean less travel and greater availability to each other. They have four children and as they grow up, the demands on Dan and Dawn grow.

The situation that sparked the need to ask the Five Questions was Stacy, the oldest, being invited to join a traveling soccer team. Dawn and Dan realized that they had to give their full commitment to this opportunity for Stacy.  They understood that this was a step towards her earning a college athletic scholarship.


How do you support each child fairly when they are at different ages and stages of development? How do you manage two businesses with four kids when almost every week there is travel involving one of your children? Who are you going to say No to in the family?


The precise problem that Dawn and Dan had to resolve was two-fold? How do they create a schedule for the family that was fair to each child? But not just fair to each child, how do they identify and plan for the opportunities of growth and development for each child? Instead of trying to avoid playing favorites, how to treat each child as a favorite in their own way?

Dawn and Dan also faced the dilemma how to operate their two businesses while taking care of each child. Imagine the stress they felt on a daily basis. Imagine the demands on the marriage relationship in an environment where, in many ways, each parent must deny themselves in order to be at their best for their kids. This is not an exceptional story. This is a normal story that families face today.

The difference in these two marriages is one of values. Not any particular value, but the importance of shared values. The first couple shared a general belief in the idea of marriage. But they did not see marriage in the same way. As a result, they grew further and further apart, resulting in each partner saying no to the other as a way to preserve their own sense of values.

Dan and Dawn share a range of values. They are saying yes, not only to their children but to each other. Each time that they have made decisions to say no to themselves, they are doing so because of what they perceive as a higher priority, a yes that matters more to them. As a result, they were able to plan ahead for each child and themselves.

Dawn and Dan are asking the impact question from three points of view. What is the impact they want for each child? What is the impact that we want for us as a family? What is the impact of our family upon our businesses? Presently, Dawn’s office is at home. Dan’s business is in an office park 15 minutes away.


This question has brought clarity to their situation. Not just clarity in a general sense that they see a problem. They now have a clearer focus on what is the goal for each child, the family, and their businesses. They define the impact by the pathway to it.

  • For Stacy, it is preparation for college.
  • For Sandy, it is music and voice lessons.
  • For Danny, it is taking drawing classes at the local arts center.
  • For Doug, it is enrollment in an online course in story writing.
  • For Dawn and Dan, as a couple, it is an anniversary trip to Hawaii.
  • For the Family, it is two hours on Sunday night as Family night for dinner, games or a movie.
  • For Dawn’s business, it is hiring an assistant to manage her schedule and communication with clients.
  • For Dan, it is the reorganization of the office to allow him time to be available early mornings and after school.

In Dawn and Dan’s family situation, the impact question is not about the past, but about how the present flows into the future. Every decision that they now make has consequences for the whole family for months and years to come. Gaining clarity about the impact that they want means freedom to live without fear or worry about where each child is going. As all plans should be, they know that this is now, and flexibility will be needed as life’s unexpected transitions come at them.

This is a picture of self-awareness far beyond simply knowing one’s gifts. This is situational awareness far beyond simply seeing what is going on around us. This is a perspective that makes it possible to make decisions about our lives that leads us to be persons of impact, families of impact, businesses of impact, and communities of impact.

Simple Steps Towards Self-Awareness and Situational Awareness

To begin, you have to decide it is important to have a deeper, wider, and more comprehensive understanding of who you are.

A file in your computer of scores from a host of psychological inventories may be helpful. But only if you can connect the results to how you respond in situations. By stepping back and taking notice of your response, you will begin to see patterns of behavior.

This is why I created the Circle of Impact. The three dimensions – Ideas, Relationships, and Structure – correspond to the ways we behave. Are we always clear about why we do things? Are our relationships respectful and trusting? Can we identify the impact that we are having in our work? If we answer no to any of them, then there is a set of behaviors keeping us from those qualities.

Take it one step further and ask the Five Questions posted above. If you were to ask those regularly, you would begin to gain a sense of what is transpiring, sort of behind the scenes or under the surface, in your life. You would become aware of the behaviors you need to change. Why you are not clear about certain things. Why you are not finding fulfillment like you expect. You may find out that your relationships are the obstacle to your being a person of impact. To discover that is self-awareness.

My suggestion is that you buy a notebook and write in it as often as you can about what is happening. Don’t interpret. Just write down, this happened today. After a few weeks, go back and answer the first of the Five Questions, What has changed? And How am I or my situation in transition? To gain self-awareness with situational awareness is to simply observe what is going on and ask why. If you need help, then ask for it. I spend most days talking with people about these questions.

Resources for the Next Step

The next step is to feed your mind and heart with ideas that elevate your sense of what is possible through your best self. Let’s assume that you are not your best self, yet. We can also assume that you are not yet operating at your highest level of potential. I am not being idealistic here. I know none of us ever get there. That is not because we are inadequate, failing people. It is because our potential is unlimited. As my track coach told me in high school, “You run THROUGH the finish line, not to it.” To finish your life well is to leave a legacy. To have some clarity about what your legacy might be is another sign of a growing self-awareness.

I have been writing regularly and professionally for almost two decades. The hundreds of blog posts that I’ve written and the books that I’ve published are designed to create self-awareness in the form of thinking clearly, building relationships of respect and trust, repairing the broken structures of organizations, and, ultimately, for living and working as a person of impact. If we can do these things, then many of the problems that we face can be addressed positively.

Here are resources from my writing that can help you.

Leading for Impact weblog. Since you are reading this here, you have lready found it. It incorporates the best of my old weblog, Leading Questions, with new material that I am constantly producing.


Circle of Impact: Taking Personal Initiative To Ignite Change. It is the most complete description of how I see leadership, not as a function of an organization, but as how we function in our lives.


All Crises Are Local: Understanding the COVID-19 Global Pandemic. I look at the response through the lens of basic systems theory. Did it make sense to treat the coronavirus crisis as primarily a public health one? Did the cure become worst than the disease?


Impact Starts With Me: The Path of Self-Discovery. This is a brief introduction as to what it means to be a person of impact.


Seeing Below The Surface of Things: The Brokenness of the Modern Organization. Ever wonder why things at work never seem to get better? This short book provides a way of understanding this reality. My purpose is to provide a way to gain situational awareness for why things don’t work.


Where Did Trust Go?: Restoring Authority and Accountability in Organizations. Another short book that helps us gain situational awareness about what is happening in organizations.


Thriving In The Midst of Uncertainty: A Strategic Conversation with Bill Watkins. Bill is a friend and business coach. Written during the early months of the COVID pandemic, we discuss how to change when circumstances demand that we change. It is an encouragement to believe that we can be persons of impact regardless of the situations that we are in.


May Your No Be A Yes: A Guide To Making Better Decisions. This is a short book about reclaiming our capacity to make decisions that are affirmations of what we believe and desire for our lives.


Solving Problems: A Guide To Being A Person of Impact. We all solve problems. This is a book about how the Circle of Impact model can be utilized as a problem solving method. Two decades of solving problems using this method, I am confident to declare that it can solve any problem that you are willing to actually solve. Which is the question at the heart of being a self-aware person.

Last Word

We live in a time where everyone wants to tell us who we are. The social pressure to conform is manipulative and exploitative. If you want to rid your life of this treatment, it can only come through understanding who you are want to be, saying Yes to that person, and, just as importantly, who you don’t want to be.

To become self-aware, you need to accept that you will have to change. Instead of changing into someone you don’t want to be, you can change into who you want to be.

At the same time, this doesn’t mean that we isolate ourselves into some hermetically sealed perspective that no one gets a crack at. Rather we need relationships of respect, trust, and mutual accountability in order to really be able to know ourselves.

It is for this purpose that I spend each day. If you need help, just ask. Contact me at ed@edbrenegar.com with the subject heading: Self-awareness

Dr. Ed Brenegar is a Leader for Leaders working with individuals, their teams, organizations and communities who find themselves at a point of transition. Ed has developed an innovative leadership model called, Circle of Impact, that clarifies what the impact of their life or the work of their organization can be. From this perspective, impact is the change that makes a difference that matters. Ed. for over 30 years, has inspired and equipped people and organizations to practice this fresh understanding of leadership. All leadership begins with personal initiative to create impact that makes a difference that matters. Everyone within an organization or a community can, therefore, practice leadership initiative. In so doing, they turn what were once leadership-starved organizations into leader-rich cultures that make a difference that matters.

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